Everything Is Going to Be Great by Rachel Shukert by Rachel Shukert - Read Online

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Everything Is Going to Be Great - Rachel Shukert

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Chapter One

I Am Not Even Washing the Underpants of Me

I have to tell you: I love looking at myself in the mirror.

I realize that coming from a person who has published two memoirs before the age of thirty, this admission is about as shocking as a teenage boy owning up to a furtive wank into a brittle notebook during an undersupervised study period. But all is not as simple and self-regarding as it seems. While I’m certainly helpless to resist the affirming charms of a freshly polished shop window, and loath to sit opposite a reflective surface in a restaurant lest my dining companion bear witness to a narcissism so overwhelming it overshadows even the elemental impulse to feed, the truth is that my favorite time to look at myself is when something horrible has happened.

When a boyfriend does a runner, when a family member dies, when a doctor who clearly doesn’t know the kind of suggestible maniac he is dealing with mentions that a seemingly benign skin rash on my forearm is a potential symptom of a rare form of lymphoma, I rush at once to the nearest glass in order to admire the bloodshot eyes, the swollen features, the shadowy streaks of mascara trailing unsteadily from cheek to chin like some faded penmanship of woe.

It is in these moments of despair that I think I feel most alive. This, I think as I gaze upon my mournful countenance with quiet pride, is not a person who goes quietly, measuring out her life in uncomplaining coffee spoons, hiding away her feelings behind a suffocating veil of politesse. This is a person of exquisite sensitivity. A person who sees, who senses, who feels deeply. Some people might say that such a person is histrionic and insufferably tiresome, but I like to think that such a person is, at least in some small part, special and destined for great things.

Unfortunately, what I seem most destined for is repeatedly smashing into things and breaking my face. I’ve been doing it with alarming frequency throughout my histrionic, insufferable, and tiresome life.

When I was seven, hopped up on three Cokes and a giant Rice Krispies treat, I smashed my face into the cement floor of a Schlotzky’s deli in Omaha: the result of an ill-advised gymnastics demonstration on a pommel horse constructed of two metal chairs. My teeth hit the ground first, nearly severing half my upper lip. I had to be rushed to the emergency room to have it reattached. Perhaps this was the catalyst for my curious rapture in observing my own misery, for in the weeks that followed, I found myself glued to the full-length mirror in my parents’ bedroom, watching with cheerful fascination as my lip evolved from a seeping chancre laced with blood-encrusted stitches to something resembling the sickly pulp of a rotten grape.

I never thought you’d turn into one of those girls who is always staring at herself in the mirror, my father said, his voice tinged with wounded bewilderment. I just didn’t think you were the type.

Well, I lisped through the pain, I gueth you thwought wrong.

The injuries continued at such a rate it’s a miracle I didn’t graduate from high school looking like Mickey Rourke. At nine I caught a fly ball with my eye socket, at ten an ice skating mishap left me with a vicious slash across my temple and minor nerve damage in the pad of my right hand. I lost track of the number of times the annual French Club ski trip to Nebraska’s single fake mountain ended in a stinging haze of iodine and a smear of fresh blood on the manufactured snow. When I was a college sophomore, a full-height subway turnstile locked and retracted without warning, leaving me with a black eye that lasted for weeks. I camped out in the bathroom on the third floor of the Arts and Sciences building, delighting in the ever-changing sunrise of violets, mustards, and fuchsias that danced around my eye socket, until a well-meaning janitor slipped me the number of a domestic violence hotline. Some months later a midnight hula-hoop contest and a pitcher of Long Island Iced Teas had ended with me waking up on a stretcher at the NYU hospital downtown. As I had been in an alcoholic blackout at the time, the attending physician could only postulate I had been hit by a car. A close shave, but boy, was it worth it—the wall of gritty facial abrasions that greeted me in the morning looked like an abstract rendering of the Battle of Corregidor.

Yet none of those various manglings had prepared me for what stared back at me in the mirror the day our story begins, bathed in a drowsy stream of soft Parisian light.

It was the summer before my junior year of college. I was one of sixteen NYU acting students deemed promising enough for participation in an eight-week experimental theater intensive in Amsterdam. Each morning, we wrapped ourselves in loose, shapeless clothing—oversized T-shirts and soft trousers, the sort of pants an infant might wear—and noisily mounted our secondhand bicycles for the chilly ride to class, garnering curious stares from the lanky Dutchmen on their way to work. Throughout the day, we lay in darkened studios, contorting our bodies into unseemly shapes; we thrust our hindquarters into the air and tried to feel the workings of our kidneys; we let out feral, wordless cries to symbolize rage and bellowed strings of rapid gibberish to approximate joy. We thought we were geniuses.

Even better, we were rich geniuses. In New York, we might sleep in some windowless storage space in Bushwick with roommates who found it perfectly fine to pee in the kitchen sink or hoard their menstrual blood for use as plant fertilizer, but in Amsterdam, where the dollar was strong and the euro just an avaricious gleam in the World Bank’s beady eye, we spent like sheiks. In the evenings, when classes had ended, we cut a wide swath through the city’s shops and descended on its restaurants, gorging ourselves on Kobe beef, giant prawns, desserts thick with chocolate and cream, and when the night’s feasting was over, we gathered in our common room to smoke enormous amounts of marijuana and congratulate one another on our general excellence. We were golden children, shining beacons of untapped talent and unending youth, and one day soon we would all be stars.

When our first free weekend arrived, we were eager to reward ourselves for our hard work. A large group had decided to visit a mountain town in the Swiss Alps, where in exchange for money one could jump out of an airplane. I thought this sounded like fun, until it dawned on me that the jumping would occur while the airplane was actually in the air, and I realized everyone around me was out of their fucking mind. I would no sooner jump willingly out of a plane than insert shards of broken glass into my anus. The world was already fraught with danger. Why ask for more trouble?

"Dude, I can’t wait for that shit. An enormous wave of curling smoke drifted out of Jason Barnsdorf’s mouth and over the bong, like a sheet of clouds around the roof of a lighthouse. To be in the sky like that? Like some kind of fucking immortal, man."

Like a god. Todd Beckerman pumped his arms in the air and bent backward at the waist, displaying the flexibility newly honed in our daily Ashtanga class. He had already removed his pants for the night, and at the hem of his jockey shorts I could plainly see one of his testicles, straining dangerously against its taut wrapping of hairy flesh. Like a Greek fucking god.

Four feet eleven inches tall, and bedecked in Tiffany hearts and chains and knots that I assumed had been draped ritualistically on her person at the time of her Bat Mitzvah, Stacey Seligmann hailed from Great Neck, New York—a place I had never visited but believed to be peopled with those who felt the same way I did about voluntarily plummeting to one’s death in some godforsaken corner of Switzerland.

Fuck that, said Stacey delicately, surveying our companions with a look of practiced disdain. "I want to stay in a nice hotel and go shopping. I want to wear pants with a zipper and feel like a human being again."

I said, I just don’t want to die.

And so two interminable days later, Stacey Seligmann, Stacey Seligmann’s Louis Vuitton Classic Monogram Carryall, and I arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris. Our heavily discounted train tickets had taken us on a circuitous route, including several uninteresting and unannounced stops in rural Belgium, and by the time we arrived we were dirty, tired, and cranky, just like real Parisians.

It was July 14, exactly 211 years to the day since a mob of revolutionaries had stormed the fortress of the Bastille. As I watched Stacey’s kinky blond ponytail bob determinedly before me, I thought that now, as then, France might never be the same.

We took a taxi to our hotel to drop off our things and wandered over to the Place Vendôme. The statue of Napoleon on top of the famous bronze column glittered softly in the midday sun, as men in gray jumpsuits were setting up long tables along the street. On the tables sat plump bottles of red wine, spaced in clusters every few feet. Two of the men careened past us, carrying an enormous bench, and Stacey jumped out of the way to avoid being knocked to the ground.

It must be for Bastille Day, I said, sweeping my hands awkwardly in the air. "It’s today. Le quatorze de juillet. I was here for it before, when I was in high school." The summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I’d spent several weeks in a small village in the southwest of France as part of an exchange program I had signed up for with three clearly defined goals in mind: (1) to learn to speak perfect French; (2) to shed my last stubborn pounds of pubescent baby fat; and (3) to finally experience the love of a man: that is, the kind of love that can be shown with a penis. My abject failure to achieve any of these at the time (although, in the interim, I had at least managed to accomplish the last two) was in large part the motivation for my decision to take this summer semester abroad: I wanted another chance to do things right.

Stacey pursed her small mouth thoughtfully. It’s like the French Fourth of July, right?

I nodded. It’s a lot the same. There are fireworks, picnics, things like that. And I guess we must have missed it, but in the morning there’s a big parade down the Champs-Élysées.

Like Macy’s? Cartoon floats and things?

No. It’s an army parade, and very solemn. Every branch of the military marches: the navy or the air force or . . . whatever, in these ceremonial outfits, you know, like with swords and epaulettes and big ostrich plumes. Christian Lacroix designs all the dress uniforms of the French military, I remembered suddenly. It’s all very gay and ornate.

Lacroix. Stacey rolled the word over her tongue. How do you know that?

The father of my French exchange family told me. The family had taken advantage of the holiday to take a weekend trip to the Futuroscope, a sort of stunningly dull Gallic Epcot Center just outside Poitiers. On the journey north, we had driven for miles through commercial sunflower farms. Accustomed to the unrelieved dullness of cornstalks and grain silos that formed the similarly agricultural landscape of Nebraska, I thought the bursting fields of towering golden blossoms were one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. On the morning of Bastille Day, the other children and I gathered in front of the ancient television set in one of the dingy hotel rooms their parents had rented, to peer at the endless stream of soldiers loping crisply down the boulevard, perfect and splendidly dressed as expensive toys in a glass case. I was enthralled, and nearly jumped out of my skin when the father (whose penis, incidentally, was the only one I saw during my stay, a fleshy, purple Twinkie bobbing gelatinously against his inner thigh as he changed clothes at the beach) surprised me from behind, grunting in English: "Regard them. They lose every war for five hundred years, but how magnificent their vestments."

Stacey Seligmann narrowed her eyes. My cousin Jonathan went to join the Israeli Army after he graduated high school. Now he’s superreligious and he won’t talk to his parents. His wife wears a wig, and they already have like thirteen kids, and my aunt and uncle have never met any of them. My mother says it’s a cult.

I’ve decided to raise my kids Catholic, I said. It’s also a cult, but at least they’ll get to wear cute uniforms. I always wanted to be a Catholic because of the uniforms.

Why didn’t you just go to a private school, then? Stacey asked.

We don’t have them in Omaha, I said. I used to ask to go to boarding school, but my mother said we were too poor.

Stacey quickly changed the subject. Even a facetious reference to poverty seemed to make her uneasy. Would you ever date an Arab guy?

Maybe, I said. Would you?

What’s the point? Your family would never speak to you again, and your kids would just end up looking Jewish anyway. I was beginning to enjoy Stacey Seligmann. Do you think they’ll hang out in the streets tonight? she asked. Like a block party or something? Is that what these tables are for?

I eyed one of the men in the gray jumpsuits, who stood scowling at the far end of the nearest table as he smoothed the creases from the tablecloth, a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth. I’ll find out.

Americans love to moan about the rudeness of the French, but I’ve found that any effort to communicate with them in their native tongue, no matter how poor or grammatically ludicrous, eases one’s way considerably. It allows the French to change their attitude toward you from revulsion to pity, and it’s hard to be truly hostile to someone you feel genuinely sorry for. You might, for example, be annoyed with an ill-mannered child in a fancy restaurant, but when you realize the child is severely retarded, that changes things. If you want to get anywhere with the French, you have to become that retarded child.

After a few dribbling starts, the man grudgingly informed me that yes, there would be a celebration in the streets that night. The tables were set up for people to come with picnic suppers to watch the fireworks. The tables, like the wine, were provided by the government.

Stacey was somewhat less impressed by the idea of government wine than I was. Really? She squinted, adjusting the Pucci-print scarf tied round her head. You want to hang out all night in the street with a bunch of strangers? I thought we were going to have dinner at that Japanese restaurant we saw in the guidebook.

You can get sashimi in New York! I cried. We’re in Paris! It’s so beautiful! We’ll party with French people. We’ll meet hot guys. Where’s your sense of adventure?

But I don’t speak French.

Don’t worry, I said. I’ll take care of everything. Just leave it to me.

Sometimes I have dreams in which I become extraordinary, capable of extraordinary things. I dream I am a professional ballet dancer or an Olympic gymnast or an M-to-F transsexual married to Joe Biden (actually, this last was rather upsetting, as none of the other Georgetown wives would have lunch with me once they’d heard I had a penis) and I feel small and empty when I wake up to discover that I am still just me.

The Bastille Day party was like one of those dreams made real. After a mere six to eight glasses of government wine, I was speaking French with an eloquence and fluency I have never achieved before or since, and the more I drank, the better I got. Unlike government cheese, which gives you stomach cancer and, when squashed into spherical form, provides a handy and biodegradable alternative to a Super Ball, government wine was an elixir of verbosity and insight. This, I thought, was the wine of philosophical discourse and political debate, the wine of Voltaire and Descartes, of Sartre, Derrida, Foucault, and Debord.

If only they’d served this wine in the exam room of my SAT IIs, I might have had a real chance at life, I said. Sadly, I chugged the rest of my glass, spilling some of the dark purple liquid down my neck.

Take it easy, said Stacey. It’s eight o’clock, and we haven’t eaten anything.

Eaten? I shrieked. "Who needs to eaten? I’m fiiiine. Better than fine. I’m formidable. This bottle is gone. I better go cherche for another one."

About halfway through bouteille nombre deux, I struck up a conversation in French with a group of equally sozzled graduate students.

Speak not of Simone de Beauvoir to me! The force of my exhortation caused me to teeter slightly. Serge, one of the students, was standing beside me. I grabbed his shoulder for support, and the top of his balding head grazed my clavicle. There are two major types of Frenchmen, I’ve found: the heartbreakingly gorgeous Alain Delon types, whose bee-stung lips and limpid eyes leave them with few options in life other than posing languidly in Versace ads and illegitimately impregnating people like Halle Berry; and then there are these crinkly little Ewok people who have no compunction about dandling their nicotine-stained fingers in and around your cervix in public, preferably without your consent. My French father from my previous sojourn, for example, fell squarely in the latter category, as did my new friends, apart from Fabrice the dental student, who was easily six foot nine with a face like Andre the Giant. But they were friendly, they had somehow commandeered a full case of magical wine, my cervix had as yet remained unfondled, and I was on a roll: It is Gustave Flaubert who is the one true writer of feminism of France. Yes, it is true, he is making the punishment on top of Emma Bovary, but also he is saying it is the bad of the society that he is making atop her this punishment. It is necessary for one to wait for the writer who calls himself Ibsen for to allow the sin of a woman it is to be also her salvation. But too bad! All the men of Scandinavia are being very terrible in the doing of the sex. Triumphant, I let go of Serge’s shoulder and lurched back against the railing of the bridge.

Serge laughed. "Okay. But, chérie, we are all mathematics students. We aren’t studying literature."

I scoffed. This is nothing to me. I pulled the cork out of another bottle of red wine and poured about a third of the contents down my throat. But I have more to be talking. Simone de Beauvoir, she is talking very beautiful about the feminism. But in the true life? She is washing the underpants of Sartre and then she is making of the tears when he is doing the sex with the others of the women. Even in French, I was beginning to detect in my speech the vaguely Southern twang that creeps into my voice when I am very, very drunk. How I came upon this affectation is a mystery to me—I think it has something to do with some atavistic association of Southerners with gentiles, and gentiles with drunkenness. A woman who is true feminist, she is not doing of this. Hear me, Benoit! Me, I do not care if you are erotic—Benoit had tiny eyes, set high in his forehead like a Modigliani painting, while the tip of his nose almost reached his chin—but I am not doing the washing of the shit from the underpants of a man! I finished the rest of the wine and smashed the empty bottle against the cobblestones, for punctuation. The shattered glass sprayed my legs, leaving a spatter of tiny red spots of blood against my bare skin. I am not even washing the underpants of me!

Are you okay? asked Stacey.

Are you kidding? I’m just getting started, I proclaimed. Now, which one are you going to fuck? I think I’ll take the little one, unless you want him. You know, since you’re both small. She stared at me strangely. No, I amended, you’re right. We should be in love with them first.

I don’t know how long we stood drinking on the bridge, but around bottle number six, I hit the wall. By the time it was agreed we should be moving on, I had lost my full command of any language.

Where? I slurred, for the fourteenth time, as we descended the steps into the Metro, sloshing wine from a paper cup down the front of my sundress. Where we go to?

We are going to the ball, said Benoit, in English. The ball, the party of the . . . the man of fire. You know? With the water, he extinguish of the fires . . . from the trees he is rescuing the small poor kittens . . .

I think we should go back to the hotel, said Stacey. We can just get a cab.

No! I shouted. My cup was empty now. The spilled wine stung the tiny cuts the broken glass had left on my legs. Don’t be crazy! This is what we’re here for. We’re going to the fucking ball!

I knew I was naked before I knew I was awake. Naked and swathed in a coarse fabric of an unfamiliar blue. Oh God. What the hell was the matter with me? I hadn’t actually meant to sleep with that tiny Frenchman. It was supposed to be a joke, just a joke, like the time at dinner when I said I would do four shots of balsamic vinegar, no hands, for fifteen dollars. Although afterward, when I lay moaning in agony on my bare mattress as the acid churned mercilessly through my insides, that hadn’t seemed so funny either.

Alors. One must persevere, even though it sometimes seems most practical to kill oneself. I propped myself up slightly on an aching elbow and scanned the ground for my clothes. The floor was linoleum, gleaming whitely under the glare of reflected fluorescent light. That was unexpected—unless you lived in a nursing home, who had linoleum in their bedroom? Or fluorescent lighting? And who slept in a bed that was this narrow? Or this high off of the ground? Or on wheels?

The sheet was tucked up tightly under my armpits, smooth and uncreased as though done with great care. At the top, stamped in fuzzy black ink, was a name: Hôtel-Dieu de Paris. Hotel? This was not our hotel. The hotel I had checked into had carpeting and was lit by floor lamps with soft, flattering bulbs. Had we changed rooms? Outraged, I sat all the way up and lunged for the phone by the bedside, intending to call down to the front desk to complain.

That was when I noticed the IV sticking out of my left hand.

Elle se réveille! A woman, dressed all in white, was charging down the corridor. Her features were small and clenched, as though someone had pulled a string and gathered them tightly together in the center of her face, like the puckered folds of a drawstring purse. La petite Américaine qui a bu trop!

She was at my bedside now, forcing me back down against the sheets, shoving a thermometer under my tongue. A man in a white lab coat materialized at her elbow. He was bearded, his sleepy eyes ringed with shadows the color of a Kalamata olive. It took me a couple of minutes to realize they were speaking to me. I had no way to answer them. My miraculous French had disappeared completely, a dream forgotten before waking. All I could pick out was a scolding refrain: Tu as bu trop. Tu as bu trop. You drank too much.

They’re using the familiar, I thought wildly. Why don’t they show some respect?

The nurse produced a syringe. Please, I croaked in terror, desperate for them to understand. "No medications . . . pas de . . . penicillin, pas de . . . de sulfa . . . I’m allergic, allergique, I . . ." Suddenly, I was blanketed in sick. The vomit was heavy and thick, and for a moment I was surprised at how nice it felt, as though someone had spread hot oatmeal over my bare chest. I was very sleepy. I would go back to sleep, I thought. When I woke up, I would be somewhere else, somewhere familiar and safe.

The Emergency Room

Here is a fact: Being in foreign countries makes you clumsy. American feet unaccustomed to cobblestones are forced to lumber gingerly through the streets. You don’t know where anything is, so you have to keep retracing your steps, seeking out inscrutable signage, wandering around looking sweet and befuddled, which makes you an easy mark for bullies, criminals, and the perpetually annoyed. Making a phone call from a public telephone becomes an insurmountable feat. The money is unfamiliar, so buying anything takes forever, to the undisguised annoyance of your fellow shoppers. In short, to visit a foreign country is to know what it’s like to be a very old person holding up a grocery store queue at rush hour, vaguely aware of the storm cloud of hatred lurching in your direction but powerless and too arthritic to fling yourself from its merciless path.

This, in combination with the activities most people like to engage in while on vacation, such as the drinking of alcohol, the doing of drugs, and the sexing of dubious strangers, means there is approximately a 115 percent chance of you or one of your party landing in the emergency room sometime during your stay.

Fear not! Despite what you may have heard some asshole in a bad toupee say on C-SPAN, America does NOT in fact have the best health care system in the world. Every Western European country is ranked higher than the United States in overall health care, and most Central European ones as well. (You know who’s last? Myanmar. Don’t get drunk and break your nose in Myanmar, unless you want to wake up in a vat of raw sewage with someone else’s severed hand sewn to your face.)

However, just because the doctors and nurses across the pond are pretty much guaranteed not to let you die in the emergency room because you don’t have the right piece of laminated cardboard, or to present you with an itemized bill totaling $148,000, including twelve dollars per sheet of Kleenex used to mop the blood and/or vomit from your neck and clavicle, it doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong. Still, an emergency room visit can be one of the grandest highlights of Rachel Shukert’s The Grand Tour™ if you simply follow the Three P’s: Politesse, Preparedness, and Prescience.

Be Polite

Apart from a serial killer whose trailer you have unwittingly just entered, there is nobody with more godlike control over your body and well-being than a medical professional about to insert an IV or other such implement into your vein. Now is not the time to say things like: If it weren’t for us, you’d all be speaking German right now, or